She strides elegantly into the studios of the BBC World News TV, takes the presenter’s chair and within seconds is in charge of her programme Focus on Africa. When she is on air, Sophie Ikenye rules the airwaves. Few eyes looking at her on the screen dart away as viewers are glued to watch her on the programme. This is Sophie Ikenye, the iconic Kenyan broadcaster, Producer and anchor at work in London.
Broadcast journalism is not only Sophie’s profession, but it is also her passion.
Her love for broadcasting started years before she even faced the real mike. ‘I quite liked broadcasting when I was growing up,’ she told me, ‘I even practised being a TV presenter in front of the mirror with a spoon as a microphone!’
She possesses that inbuilt curiosity and says ‘I always like to know first before telling everyone else. Yes, that sounds nosy, but I’m the curious kind – I like asking questions and asking them hard.’
She studied in Kenya and after gaining a mass communications qualification, secured a radio internship at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
With 12 years of experience in the broadcasting industry, she has worked with big media houses in Kenya that have very different styles of reporting, Sophie was now ready to turn her attention to international broadcasting networks.
The BBC World Service in London was looking for three presenters from East, West and South Africa, so she jumped at the chance and sent in her application.
‘I started my BBC career at the World Service as the presenter of the radio version of Focus on Africa which I presented for three years.’
Her experience in Kenyan broadcasting ‘helped me adapt quickly when I arrived at BBC World News. Having also been a radio news editor at an independent radio station in Kenya I learnt to listen to local communities and constantly challenge my own belief system,’ she said.
Another opportunity opened for Sophie when the station was launched for TV – she was invited to be one of the key presenters alongside the popular Ghanaian broadcaster, the late Komla Dumor. ‘One of the things I enjoy most about my job at the BBC is being surrounded by so many talented journalists from whom, five years on, I've learnt so much,’ she said.
What is the difference between working in Kenyan and British broadcasting, I asked.
‘The most significant difference between working in Kenya and the BBC is that there’s a lot of thought put into what stories we carry. Questions like why are we doing this story and who cares and key.
‘In Africa, we have 160 reporters based in 40 countries and what makes us stand out from other international news channels is our combination of a truly global perspective with this local knowledge.’
It is often believed in the developing countries that Western broadcasting networks are biased against them portraying Africa in a negative light – what is Focus on Africa’s take on covering the continent?
‘On Focus on Africa we are passionate about telling the real African stories and finding different ways to tell them on all platforms,’ she says adding, ‘There’s a lot of thinking that goes into this. We look at the continent through African eyes and tell a story in a way that someone in Fiji or New Zealand would care about.’
Sophie cites the examples of programmes currently on the air.
‘There is a new series called Med in Africa which showcases health innovations across Africa and what these might mean for the future of healthcare on the continent and beyond.
‘We will also be looking at how the shortage of essential new-born and child health services is being addressed through a project in Kenya. There are very positive stories that are motivating and inspiring coming out of the continent, for example young entrepreneurs, and we want to make sure we showcase these.’
What’s more important is that unlike foreign correspondents who just fly into Africa, stay in plush hotels for a few days churning out often biased material, the BBC’s African reportage is different and focused. ‘These stories are reported by African journalists on the continent who live and breathe the stories,’ she said.
‘That is the core of what we do on BBC World News. We often report on stories before they’re on the radar of other broadcasters and we stay there long after the other cameras have gone. For example, we were reporting on the first cases of Ebola from West Africa in Focus on Africa long before other broadcasters started reporting on it.’
Sophie is very keen to encourage Kenyan women to enter journalism and broadcasting. ‘There are more and more women taking up journalism – and strong ones too,’ she says.
‘My advice to those looking to venture into journalism is, don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. Cultivate a spirit of curiosity. Don't be afraid to think outside the box, this is a profession that requires a lot of thinking. Don't be afraid of the odd hours that you have to put in. And, please don't forget you are a woman. Don't leave behind your feminine side, because what they say about women and instinct does come in handy in this profession.’
In her long career, Sophie has interviewed many prominent leaders, movers and shakers of the society, so who was her favourite?
‘To be fair,’ she says diplomatically, ‘All the presidents I have interviewed are unique. I think what excites me is being able to sit down with leaders from countries that we hardly hear much about in the news, for example, Djibouti, Niger, Mozambique’.
Not all interviews, Sophie admits, are easy to tackle.
‘I should also admit I have had my fair share of difficult interviews. But whenever I interview a prominent leader, I have to ask myself, how I can make the discussion relevant to the multi-national audiences that are watching the channel?’
Despite living in London Sophie is Kenyan at heart and misses home. ‘Kenya is home. I try to visit every three to four months since my parents and siblings are all there. I miss the food and the people. I think Kenya has some of the most intelligent people,’ she said.
Interestingly, Sophie doesn't watch much TV except the news. She is a voracious reader of everything she can get her hands on so long as it’s an exciting read.
With busy work schedules, Sophie finds little time to socialise.
‘To be frank, my social life has taken a bit of a backseat, but I'm not complaining. I have recently been organising my time as best as I can. I see my friends on weekends and get involved a lot more with neighbourhood activities and just generally taking care of myself!’